Buddy Guy Walks into a Bar
By Ben Greenman
Fuzzface, 2019, by Omar Velázquez. Courtesy the artist and Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago
It’s Chicago. It’s the Nineties. It’s winter. The young man has come north to further his education, and he’s remained on track for a few months, but then he’s derailed: by youth, by fear, by appetites, by a relationship, by a breakup. One cold night he sets off wandering through the city and gets only ten blocks or so before he reconsiders. He needs to find a place, a coffee shop, a bookstore, a bar. He goes by the open door of a club. He can see and hear inside, where there’s a man playing, an electric guitar being played. Notes come flashing off the thing. For a second, maybe even less, his life is repaired. The club door shuts. He ends up in a bar down the street, listening to a man in a hat hold forth on the toxicity of nostalgia. “Memory is a thicket in which you imagine you are happy to be trapped,” says the man in a hat. The young man tries to remember the music the man in the club was playing but cannot. It’s his loss.
Buddy Guy, born George Guy in 1936, in Lettsworth, Louisiana, a tiny town at the crook of the L of the state, just off the encroaching nose of Mississippi. Buddy Guy, born poor to parents who picked cotton for $2.50 per hundred pounds. As a small child, he was enlisted to pick alongside them. For six, ten, twelve years, when you weigh even less than that, how do you puzzle through the process of calculating your own value? Over the years—in his memoir, When I Left Home, in interviews—Guy has slipped this question, asks that he be considered not from the outside, where he’d be seen as a boy in poverty, a laborer forced to perform a dehumanizing task, but from the inside, where he was in fact a little boy happy to be spending time with his father.
Life was simple, aggressively so. The family had no electricity for the first twelve years of Guy’s life. The windows of his house had no glass in them. There was no indoor plumbing. He picked cotton and learned to ride horses. Early on, Guy came to understand that the world made noise. Or rather: he came to understand that the world could be made to make sound. Noise, ever present, was a clutter and a clatter. Sound could be extracted and examined. The first sounds that mattered to him were the chirps and trills of the birds in the trees. They sang songs, made melodies, repeated their beautiful compositions as if they were proud of them. Sound, in this way, was alchemized into music. A family friend who used to drop by the house with a two-string guitar showed him that man could fly.
At some point, home improvements brought window screens to the Guy home: kept out the bugs, let in the air. Guy says that when he looked closely at the screens, all he saw was a lattice of guitar strings. He pulled a wire out and made his own instrument. His parents, alerted to his vandalism by the mosquitoes on their skin, put an end to the experiment, but Buddy just went back to the laboratory, stretched strings from hands to feet, looped rubber bands around nails driven into walls. He did whatever he could to put music into the air around him.
The Guy home didn’t get electricity until the late Forties, when Buddy was twelve or thirteen. Electricity brought the lightbulb, but it also brought the phonograph. The first record Buddy remembered hearing was “Boogie Chillen” by John Lee Hooker, a song that was itself a product of electricity. Electricity also brought him an encounter with Lightnin’ Slim, an impromptu performance by the older man that taught Buddy what an amp could do, and it brought him Muddy Waters on a jukebox. He was still playing acoustic—his father bought him a makeshift two-string, which held him for a while, until a generous stranger bought him a Harmony six-string.
In his teens, Buddy left Lettsworth for Baton Rouge and better schools. His sister lived there and he did too, for a little while, before his mother had a stroke that brought him back home. The whole family decamped for Baton Rouge soon after that, Buddy’s hope replaced by their heaviness. Buddy started working, any job he could find. He did time at a beer bottling plant and a gas station and as a janitor at LSU. And he started to build a life of music, hitting the bandstand with local acts and eagerly seeing big names when they came to town. (He was especially taken with Guitar Slim, who had shoes in all colors of the rainbow.) He upgraded from his Harmony acoustic to an electric guitar, a Gibson Les Paul.
People around him started talking down Louisiana, or rather talking up Chicago. It was, they said, the only real destination for an ambitious and talented young man. The streets were paved with blues. Buddy was reluctant, or at the very least careful. A heedless change helped no one. What would he do for work? What if he didn’t make it? People laughed. Plenty of floors to clean, they said.
And so he went. The date is not in dispute: September 25, 1957. Buddy has called it his birthday, or at the very least the second time he was born. The train took him through Memphis, like all trains carrying musicians should. A man in his car raised the question of birds. They go south for the winter, he said, and here was Buddy going north for it. The comment hung there in the air, not quite a paradox, not quite a joke, not quite an insight.
It’s Chicago. It’s the Nineties. The young man is in a bar, going quickly through his first drink so he can get to his second. There’s no live music in the bar, but there’s a jukebox, and it’s filled mostly with blues. A young woman approaches the jukebox, jingling a palmful of quarters. She picks her songs confidently and then comes to the bar, down a little ways from where he’s sitting. The bartender brings her a drink without her asking. “It pays to be a drunk,” she says. Is she joking? The bartender laughs. “If you think that I’m going home with you, you’ve been right before,” she says. The bartender laughs again. The music is undistinguished for the first song, and then the second, and the young man is losing interest. But the third song is familiar. It sits him up. It’s drums and harmonica and also a guitar that sounds like the sun reflected in a mirror. It sounds like the man he glimpsed as he went past the club. When was that? A week earlier? Two. He can’t be sure. He considers going to the jukebox to check the song, but by the time he screws up his courage it’s over. He considers asking the young woman, but his courage is suddenly unscrewed. He says nothing to her. It’s his loss.
Women, weather, money made and lost, drinks to calm the mind and drinks to disarrange it. Newly arrived in Chicago, Buddy was staying at an apartment with a Louisiana friend whose hospitality fell short of taking Buddy around town to find work. Every day was a seesaw; Buddy would wake up in the morning sure he’d make it as a bluesman and go to bed at night more sure that he wouldn’t.
One evening that first year, Buddy went to the 708 Club, down on East 47th Street. He had been drinking, only a little, but was more than a little drunk on account of lack of food. Otis Rush was playing that night and he said from the stage he’d heard murmurs about the new kid in the audience. He called Buddy up to play. Buddy channeled everything he had learned, along with everything he hoped for and also everything he feared. It was a star-making performance. He earned Rush’s respect and then some—after the show, the club owner sent him out to the street with a message. “The Mud wants you.” Parked out in front was a station wagon. The backseat window slid down. The face revealed in the half-light was Muddy Waters, who had come to the club to see the hot young guitarist everyone was talking about. Various versions of this story have circulated. In one of them, Muddy asked him if he was hungry and then offered to make him a salami sandwich. In all of them, Muddy said that he saw something special in Buddy.
Buddy began to acquire altitude. But he was not yet in order as a man. Sometimes distracted by women, sometimes by money trouble, sometimes too trusting, sometimes too wild, he was unsure how far he could go but certain that he wanted to get there fast; in his memoir, he describes himself as “a lost ball in high weeds.” He played weekly cutting contests for liquor, often winning. His technique came together: taut lines and tight clusters of notes delivered at odd angles and at high volume. And his showmanship evolved. He was picking up on a tradition that stretched back at least to Charley Patton, who played behind his head, and extending it. He played behind his head, behind his back, between his legs, with his teeth, with drumsticks. He threw the guitar in the air and caught it without ever breaking out of the song. Years later, his flamboyant style would find its way to its greatest inheritor, Jimi Hendrix, who studied both Guy’s playing and his performances. Guy had a trademark, which was a long cord from his guitar to his amp that let him roam around the club and play before taking the stage. The cord was a metonymy: it represented his connection to electricity. Buddy was reaching back to the primal force that had formed him, returning to the phonograph, to the jukebox, to Magic Slim’s amplifier. He was switched on. Even his misfortunes advanced the story: When his Gibson Les Paul was stolen, desperate for a replacement, he borrowed money and bought a Fender Stratocaster, which became his trademark guitar. With the help of Magic Sam he went to Cobra Records and recorded a pair of singles, “Sit and Cry (the Blues)” b/w “Try to Quit You Baby” and “You Sure Can’t Do” b/w “This Is the End,” both of which featured Ike Turner, one of Cobra’s mainstays.
Though Cobra collapsed, Buddy continued to gig around Chicago and environs, and finally he was called up to Chess, the city’s most influential label, to play on a session for Howlin’ Wolf. As a sideman, Buddy developed a separate personality, less flamboyant and histrionic than he was in the clubs. This helped him get steady work, but it also slowed his emergence as a solo star. Put plainly, Buddy didn’t have much support at the label. Leonard Chess disliked his showman mode but couldn’t see how his sideman mode would put him across. Even when it came time for him to record his own sides, the label wanted to change his name to “Buddy King.” When Buddy objected that it would confuse matters—there was already a B. B. King and a Freddie King—Chess replied that confusion was the point. If people weren’t sure which King they were buying, maybe they’d pick up one of Buddy’s records by accident.
With Chess, Buddy recorded a dozen-odd songs over the course of the 1960s, most odd indeed. Buddy had a hand in writing some of what he recorded, and he was given able assistance by Willie Dixon. Even so, the material was hit-or-miss. “Slop Around” took a stab at a dance craze, but it was abstract to the point of comedy (try to follow the instructions). “I Dig Your Wig” offered sly, propulsive commentary on black hair and class, but it was also a novelty song, not a stepping stone for a young bluesman eager to assume the mantle of Muddy or John Lee. Occasionally Chess got it right, or Buddy got it right despite Chess. In 1962, the pleasant but underwhelming instrumental “Skippin’” was backed with “Stone Crazy,” one of his signature compositions. And if you flip his “Wig” you’ll find “My Time after While,” a razor-sharp slow blues of promised vengeance.
From the distance of more than a half-century, it’s clear that Guy was in some ways a victim of history. Again, he had been born in 1936, fairly late for a bluesman. The acoustic forebears of the genre, of course, came far earlier, from Charley Patton (who was born in 1890 or so) to Blind Willie Johnson (1897) to Blind Willie McTell (1898) to Skip James (1902)—Robert Johnson, born 1911, was a trailing figure in that generation. But even the electric blues players preceded Guy by a decade or two: Howlin’ Wolf born in 1910, Muddy Waters in 1913, Willie Dixon in 1915, John Lee Hooker in 1917, Elmore James 1918, B. B. King 1925. Guy was closer in age to the rockers who followed him than to the bluesmen who preceded him.
It’s Chicago. It’s the Nineties. The young man is back at the bar. He’s come looking for the young woman. It’s not his first time back, or even his second, but he’s located a reservoir of will. The times he’s come and failed to find her, he’s passed the time by picking out songs on the jukebox. He has found the one she was playing that first time and discovered that it was in fact the same man who had been playing at the club he passed that night. The coincidence pleases him, but he has no one who can share it, not fully. All actors must be present for a coincidence to leaven into something approaching fate. The third time back to the bar, he thinks he knows how to bait the hook. He plays that song, more than once, separated by less fateful songs, and waits for the young woman to appear. She can’t be far away. She herself said she was a drunk. She never shows. The young man takes out a book. “What are you reading?” asks the bartender. “Oh, I can’t read,” he says. “I just keep this in front of me so I look smart. The hardest thing is knowing when to turn the page.” The bartender doesn’t laugh. The young man listens to the songs he has picked, especially that one song. Each time, he’s more inside it than the last. The young woman never shows. It’s her loss.
As spotty as his Chess output was, Guy’s more powerful songs—and especially his incendiary live shows—landed with the British rockers. Buddy met the Rolling Stones in 1964, when they came to record at Chess. When he heard them on the radio, he could tell that they had been picking up on what he (and other American players) had been putting down. His coming-out party, in a sense, occurred the following year, when he went to London to play the Marquee Club. All the British rockers came out to see him, including the triumvirate of Yardbirds guitarists—Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page. Rod Stewart met Buddy and offered to drive him around town. Coming north to Chicago had been the first step; going east across the pond was the second.
And yet, it didn’t do much for his recording career, at least not right away. Buddy’s first LP, Left My Blues in San Francisco, came out in 1967 and was a patchwork affair at best, designed to capture the soul market as much as the blues market (Charles Stepney, who would form Rotary Connection and later work with Earth, Wind & Fire, played keyboards and orchestrated much of the material). Guy left Chess for Vanguard and put out A Man and the Blues the following year, which was a little more coherent but not much more successful.
Despite that, he remained a legitimacy marker for the most prominent British bands. In 1970, the Rolling Stones invited Buddy and Junior Wells to open a series of shows on their European tour. At the Palais de Sports in Paris on September 25—thirteen lucky years to the day after Buddy headed north from Louisiana to Chicago—Eric Clapton jumped on stage for “It’s My Life, Baby.” Clapton supported Wells and Guy not just as concert performers but as a recording act. They had done a record back in 1965, Hoodoo Man Blues, where Wells was the only artist billed because Guy was blocked by Chess. (Buddy was credited as “Friendly Chap.”) That album remains a classic of soul-blues—the opener, “Snatch It Back and Hold It,” is a straight-up James Brown rip mapped back into 1950s Chicago—and history has been corrected, to some degree, in the sense that streaming services now credit the record to both men. Five years later, Clapton got the two of them back in the studio, this time with equal billing, and produced Buddy Guy & Junior Wells Play the Blues. Declarative title, definitive record. Wells’s “Poor Man’s Plea” has the most arresting verse (“Who’s been in here / Since I’ve been gone? / Li’l black boy / With a dirty horn / Tryin’ to love my baby”). But the record peaks with Guy’s “This Old Fool,” which was recorded with backing from the J. Geils Band. It’s a somewhat standard blues-rock song, up tempo, locked into its rhythm-section-and-harmonica groove. Then comes the final stretch, which is like a rocket launch for Guy’s guitar. It’s not the virtuosity exactly. Virtuosity doesn’t bring people to the blues, and if it does, it doesn’t keep them there. The soloing is a mix of angle and feeling, a nearly perfect distillation of both defiance and pain.
The LP Clapton made with Guy and Wells didn’t solve their recording problems, not exactly. Buddy recorded sporadically throughout the Seventies and Eighties, surfacing here and there with incendiary albums—the best of them, probably, is Stone Crazy!, which came out on the Chicago indie label Alligator in 1981. (The same year, the Rolling Stones returned to Chicago to play a gig with Muddy Waters at Guy’s club, the Checkerboard Lounge.)
Then in 1991, Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues suddenly, surprisingly made him a true solo star. There’s a whiff of calculation to the proceedings thanks to highly publicized guest spots from Clapton, Jeff Beck, Mark Knopfler, and others. But when the songs work (like on Guy’s cover of John Hiatt’s “Where Is the Next One Coming From?”) the sound of the thing is huge. Most importantly, the record was a commercial and critical comeback, putting Buddy on the Billboard chart and netting him a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album. Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues kicked off a fertile recording period for him. Albums became a regular occurrence, as did Grammys (Feels Like Rain won one in 1994, as did Slippin’ In in 1996 and Blues Singer in 2004). The dark horse of the bunch is Sweet Tea, from 2001, which was nominated for a Grammy but didn’t win; it’s more stripped down and intimate than the others, suggesting a return to roots that may have been more imagined than real. “Done Got Old,” the opener, is a cover of a Junior Kimbrough song from the early Nineties, but Guy takes it slower, strips it down to its skeleton, reconnects it with John Lee Hooker.
Guy has continued to record and tour in the years since. He’s also become an ambassador of the blues, singing the praises of not only his contemporaries but the generation that followed, and the generation that followed them. Guy has developed a habit of connecting with the young fans at his shows, throwing them guitar picks, talking to them from the stage. In 2018, during a show in Connecticut, he spotted a teenager in the crowd who was yelling something about the guitar. “Do you play?” Buddy said. The kid—a suburban New Yorker named Marcky DiGiacomo, fifteen, the same age Buddy had been when he first moved to Baton Rouge—shouted back that he did. Guy then brought him on stage to jam. The future of blues is blurry, at best, and Guy himself has lamented that when his generation passes, the form may go with it. But so long as he remains a going concern, he has pledged to plug it in, to give it the electricity it needs to go.
It’s Chicago. It’s the Nineties. The young man has met another young woman. They are at a bar. It’s her birthday. “I’m happy to be here with you,” she says. There’s no romance between them, only a friendship, and the young woman has been exquisitely clear that she has no intention of changing the terms. “You know when people say it’s not personal?” she says. “Well, this is personal.” He laughs. “You laugh like I’m joking,” she says. He laughs again. She wrings her hands, gloved for winter, and makes a face of grief. “The sad clown laughs,” she says. He orders them both another round of drinks. She takes out a bag. She has started a tradition of reverse gifting, where the person celebrating a birthday is the one who gives presents. She hands him a small package. “It’s a deck of cards,” she says. “Tarot. I’m going to tell you your future. You die in a fiery crash.” But it’s not cards. It’s a cassette of an album. And not just any album, but the album that contains the song that he thinks he heard on the jukebox in that bar months before, which he still fervently believes is the song he heard coming out of the club weeks before that. Memory is a thicket in which you are happy to be trapped. He takes the cassette and thanks his best friend. She squeezes his hand with her gloved hand. It’s his gain.